We all suffer loss in life. It is part of the human condition. Yet when that loss hits close to home, it is especially difficult and painful. My Mom passed away in her home 8 ½ years ago. She had been sick for many years and the emphysema she had been diagnosed with took a slow and steady toll on her until she could no longer go on. Her death, while difficult to endure, was a blessing after watching her become more and more incapacitated by her disease.
Fr. Ron Lewinski, 71 years of age, was in seemingly good health, though he had experienced a few medical challenges as of late. Discovering that he had passed away in his room was something that no one could have expected. A sudden death like that prompts the question, “What could I (or anyone) have done differently to prevent this loss?” While I sincerely believe the answer to that question is “nothing,” it still nags at one’s soul.
It was a privilege and an honor to live with Fr. Ron these past three years. Fr. Ron is one of the “giants” of the presbyterate in Chicago and there aren’t many of those priests. He had his hand in so many things and his reach was global. In fact, the day after he passed away, I received a phone call from one of his friends in Australia who expressed his sorrow at the loss of Fr. Ron. Bishop George Rassas was able to contact a German bishop who was close friends with Fr. Ron. As of this writing, Bishop Franz was making arrangements to be present for his funeral.
I’m not going to spend this reflection describing all that Fr. Ron Lewinski accomplished in his life. For a good description of that, I invite you to go to the website of the Chicago Catholic, our Archdiocesan newspaper at: https://www.chicagocatholic.com/chicagoland/-/article/2017/07/20/-dedicated-and-devoted-priest-dies. Suffice it to say, Fr. Ron was an internationally known expert on the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and liturgy. He was also one of the authors of the Parish Transformation process, which St. Theresa participated in a year and a half ago, as well as one of the Cardinal’s delegates leading the way on “Renew my Church,” which Cardinal Cupich has initiated to help bring parishes together in this Archdiocese.
When I discovered Fr. Ron was looking for a place to live after finishing his assignment as Pastor of St. Mary of the Annunciation in Mundelein and accepting the Cardinal’s invitation to work on Parish Transformation full time for the Archdiocese, I got on the phone immediately and let him know we have a lovely rectory with lots of room and a dynamic newly ordained priest by the name of Fr. Matt Jamesson assigned to St. Theresa. We met and discussed it and before I knew it, Fr. Ron was moving in! Yay!
Resident priests are described in that way because their primary ministerial responsibilities are outside of the parish in which they reside. Little is expected of them in the parish other than hopefully assisting with Masses and other sacramental functions. Of course, as we all know by now, Fr. Ron did MUCH MORE than that!
Fr. Ron was very generous in presiding at Masses for us on a regular basis and he especially loved celebrating the school Masses with the kiddies. He also was part of the regular rotation in celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation on Saturday afternoon and he concelebrated many Masses that were significant to the parish as well.
Being the liturgist that he was, Fr. Ron helped direct our parish in a liturgical renewal that really helped bring us up to date on practices here at St. Theresa. I cannot thank him enough for that. When we found out our previous music director was going to be leaving us, Fr. Ron helped me put together a search committee of people who interviewed potential candidates for the job. I think the success of that committee speaks for itself, as we hired the perfect music director for this parish in Laura Kutscher.
One of the dreams I had when I arrived as pastor, was to create a liturgy committee. In a parish our size, a liturgy committee is so helpful in planning for all the liturgical celebrations that are a part of parish life. Fr. Ron was instrumental in the formation of the committee and helped guide all of us through our infancy.
Being one of the authors of Parish Transformation and having gone through this process at my previous parish, Fr. Ron convinced me that the time was right to engage in Parish Transformation at St. Theresa. In addition, he participated in and shared his wisdom at a number of our gatherings and helped me chart the progress of the Parish Transformation process throughout. The plan that was created is the work of the wonderful team assembled, but it also bears the mark of Fr. Ron’s guidance. Our dedication to the fulfillment of this plan will be a wonderful tribute to Fr. Ron’s guidance as well as the team’s vision, as it will benefit our parish for years to come.
It’s ironic that on the day Fr. Ron passed away I was at a gathering of priests with the Cardinal at his residence at the seminary in Mundelein and we were talking about the living situations we were all in. Some of the guys were talking about living alone, but I shared how wonderful it is to have a community of priests to live with. I said this past year with Frs. Matt, Tom and Ron has been one of the happiest years of my priesthood because it is so great to be able to come home and have not just roommates but true friends to recount the day with, laugh and unwind. In fact, the Monday before Fr. Ron died, the four priests were able to share in a “spontaneous” BBQ chicken dinner that Fr. Matt and I prepared. We really treasured those moments, because they didn’t happen often enough and because of the unplanned nature of this dinner, it was even more special. It would sadly be our last meal together.
I’d like to conclude this reflection by offering what I will miss most about Fr. Ron, because I hope it will give you further insight into the wonderful priest and friend he was. I will miss:
- His sense of humor. Fr. Ron had a tremendous smile, a hearty laugh and a great sense of humor. At one point he shared with Fr. Matt and I that someone had called him “Donald” rather than Ron. From that moment on, we called him Donald so much so that I had to check myself occasionally to remind myself he really wasn’t a Donald! He would even occasionally sign emails and notes with the “Donald” signature. It was a lot of fun. When he picked up something hot and burned his hands, he would start speaking a language that only he knew, but it sounded a little like Mandarin! Moments like those reminded us not to take our lives and ministry too seriously.
- His dedication to ministry. Fr. Ron could have retired at 70, but it seemed he worked all the harder last year because he loved his priesthood and was excited to learn and grow, right up until the end. He did talks and missions all over the world, performed weddings and baptisms all over the country and drove down to the Pastoral Center in downtown Chicago several days a week. I would laugh that before our Easter Vigil Mass and Midnight Mass at Christmas I would see Fr. Ron watching those Masses on TV broadcast from the Vatican on EWTN because he wanted to see what he could learn from them.
- His culinary skills. When I became pastor at St. Bede, parishioners gave me a large and a small crock pot that sat in a cabinet my whole time there. Once Fr. Ron moved here, he asked if I had a crock pot and I showed him where they were. He then would occasionally take great care to create a crock pot meal for the house that was always delicious!
- His great wisdom. Because of Fr. Ron’s vast experience in a variety of ministerial settings, I would frequently come to his room (which was opposite mine at the rectory) at the end of the day and ask his advice on how to handle a particular situation. He never shied away from expressing his opinion and he helped me a great deal in that regard. I will greatly miss our talks.
It has been an absolute privilege to be a very small part of Fr. Ron’s life and I think I can presume to speak for Fr. Matt and Fr. Tom and say we all very much loved living with him. I hope every member of this parish also recognizes the enormity of Fr. Ron’s contributions to our St. Theresa family.
I still find myself glancing into Fr. Ron’s room as I ascend the stairs to my quarters to see if he will be sitting in his comfy chair by the door watching TV or sitting at his desk doing work. To say he will be missed by Frs. Matt, Tom or myself goes without question, but as we mourn his loss we celebrate his new life with the risen Lord in heaven. I’m sure Fr. Ron is up there right now talking shop with Cardinal Bernardin and Cardinal George and all the other greats of the Archdiocese that have gone before him, while setting aside time to be with his family in heaven and spending a little bit of time watching over us all here on earth.
A Memorial Mass for the repose of the soul of Rev. Ronald J. Lewinski will be celebrated at St. Theresa on Thursday, September 14th at 7:00 p.m. in our Church.
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.’ (Mt 25: 23a)